I was sad to learn of the passing of Marriott’s long-time CEO Arne Sorenson, the first ‘non-Marriott’ to hold the post. My sympathies go out to his family who lost him to pancreatic cancer way too early at 62. I wasn’t going to write about it because the news is well-covered, and what could I possibly have to add?
He was an important CEO for the company, and important to the people who loved him of course. But like so many corporate CEOs perhaps the best epitaph is “it’s complicated” when analyzing their career and public persona because – as was his role – he did what he thought right for the company and that may not have been what was best for employees, customers, or society. Though reasonable people can differ.
Here’s American Airlines CEO Doug Parker’s take,
It’s polite to say only nice things about the recently-departed. And I have sympathy for Sorenson’s family and the colleagues who cared about him. Still, this claim from Scott Mayerowitz at The Points Guy troubled me,
TPG’s founder, Brian Kelly, and I were discussing Sorenson’s passing this morning and he said so aptly, “He stood up for what was right for his employees and customers.”
There’s no question that Sorenson took a public stand on some issues. As Mayorowitz observes, Arne Sorenson opposed the North Carolina bathroom bill. He spoke out in favor of travel as a way of connecting people, and opposed President Trump’s immigration policies (“He also pleaded with former President Donald Trump not to deport undocumented immigrants.”).
Though my broader point on these things is it’s complicated because at the same time some Marriott properties were found being used to detain children prior to deportation.
I sat down with Arne Sorenson shortly after Marriott acquired Starwood. It was supposed to be just a meeting with some executives, chiefly the person running Marriott Rewards at the time. But Sorenson joined the meeting and instead of a quick meet and greet he stayed for an hour. I was honored by the time.
He asked me point blank, why don’t you believe me when I say I want Marriott to have the only loyalty program customers will ever need?
I believe he wanted that at some level, but was simultaneously promising that Bonvoy would mean lower costs for owners, he saw the program as a way primarily of offering 30 brands without substantial differentiation or marketing budgets (people loyal to the program go to the Marriott website and book whatever hotels the chain has to offer). And most of all he didn’t seem to understand the nature of loyalty.
That day’s Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying that loyalty meant always offering the best value to the customer on each stay. We talked about that, because I think that gets it exactly backwards – when you develop a relationship with customers, and treat them well, they’ll stay with you even when you do not offer the best value on a given stay.
- Sorenson may have “stood up for what was right for his employees” at times, but what about the employee who was fired after ‘liking’ a tweet by Friends of Tibet as the company went to lengths to kowtow to China? Sorenson even offered up Chinese talking points on the country’s response to Covid-19.
The pandemic has been an extreme crisis for many, not least of which travel businesses, but he laid off extensive employees throughout the company and even the ones who took care of his best customers.
- And Sorenson may have “stood up for what was right for his..customers” but also told customers that resort fees are for their benefit, we apparently just fail to appreciate those add-ons, and dismissed customer covners about the Bonvoy program as ‘noise around the edges’.
Sorenson accomplished a lot. He grew the Marriott footprint substantially by acquiring Starwood. Prior to the pandemic it was a very effective company, though I think they made real blunders in giving up much of the value in what they had purchased with Starwood (by letting go of Starwood’s design team, and failing to retain many of its loyalty marketing personnel).
From what I can tell, he was a genuinely decent man. He still had much to contribute. It’s sad to lose someone especially so talented at what’s still in many ways a young age. There are huge shoes to fill for his family and for Marriott. His public legacy though, I think, is more complicated than society says we ought to acknowledge. And that flows naturally from the role he filled at the helm of a global business in a very political industry.